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Suffrage Showdown Stalls in Delaware Drama

delaware suffragists at tarin station
  • Delaware’s pivotal role in 19th Amendment ratification process
  • Strong and divided opinions between suffragists and anti-suffragists
  • Governor Townsend’s indecision on calling a special session
  • The nationwide attention and suspense surrounding Delaware’s vote
  • The ultimate failure of Delaware to ratify, leaving the 36th state vote to be found elsewhere

Delaware’s decision on the 19th Amendment became a focal point of national attention in 1920, holding immense weight as the thirty-sixth state in line to vote. The state’s ‘yea’ vote would grant women the right to vote across the nation, while a ‘no’ would cast the issue into grave doubt.  

The remaining six states, including Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Connecticut, had unpredictable stances, making Delaware’s position pivotal. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware had active anti-suffragist movements, further clouding the outcome. The nation watched with bated breath. 

The United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in June 1919. But the hardest part came next: formal submission of the amendment to the states for ratification.  

As 1919 gave way to 1920, momentum for the 19th Amendment’s ratification grew. The year opened with 24 states’ approval, Kentucky and Rhode Island quickly followed, with Oregon becoming the 25th state to ratify on January 13. Eleven states still needed to weigh in. 

Delaware’s Decisive Debate: A Battle for Votes

The Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA) opened new headquarters and chose delegates for an upcoming convention on January 13. DESA’s president, Mabel Ridgely, anticipated that the upcoming convention would be their last, marking the close of a 51-year tradition. 

At a January session, Delaware Democrats supported early ratification and urged fellow members to vote in favor if the governor called a special session. Governor John Townsend wavered on callingsuch a session, citing cost concerns. 

In early February, DESA’s Ridgely reacted to Governor Townsend’s concerns about the cost, stating that the association was willing to pay the expense, given the session’s importance for ratification. 

“The Governor replied that this was not in accord with his idea of justice, that the expense of a session would not deter him calling it, should he be convinced that it was for the best interest of the State.  

“Should he change his mind at any time,” said Mrs. Ridgely, “our offer to finance the session holds good. With twenty-six active auxiliaries in the State we would have no difficulty in raising sufficient funds for this purpose. The women of Delaware are very decidedly in earnest in this matter of their political freedom.” 

Mrs. Ridgely emphasized the inevitability of National Woman Suffrage in a February 14 letter to the ‘Evening Journal,’ likening any attempt to stop the movement to trying to sweep back the tide with a broom. 

line drawing "what if only 1/2 the people vote??"

Suffragists and Anti-Suffragists: A State Divided

“We are perfectly willing to submit the amendment to a vote of the people and abide by their decision,” responded Mrs. Henry P. Scott, vice-president of the Delaware Anti-Suffrage Association, on February 21. “That is the decision that has been reached in other States where the amendment has not been ratified and is one of the fairest tests to settle the question.”  

On March 6, Governor Townsend did call for a special session. “As to the woman’s suffrage proposition,” commented the ‘Evening Journal,’ “it is now clearly up to the General Assembly. The Governor has passed the question up to the legislators. The members who have been smilingly pussy-footing will now have to stand up and be counted.” For several weeks, Dover was a center of national attention. Newspapers from across the country reported the ups and downs of the ratification struggle 

Governor Townsend acknowledged the honest opposition but emphasized that Delaware could not afford to delay in granting franchise to women. He believed the time had come to grant this right, considering only three states were needed for ratification. 

“Our deduction,” Baltimore Sun’s editorial page weighed in on March 12, “is that the suffrage amendment will be ratified by Delaware’s Legislature. But still we find a feeling of uncertainty. Some members of the Legislature, heretofore hostile to suffrage, have lined up for it. Still we could not find that assurance had been given by the necessary majority.” 

“If the cohorts of suffrage carry their banners to victory through the Delaware Legislature it will only be after they have fought their way through the ranks of the antis,” countered Mrs. Scott of the Delaware Anti-Suffrage Association. 

them suffragettes be gittin everytin

The Special Session: Hope, Hurdles, and Heartbreak

Delaware suffragist efforts stalled at the special session’s June 2 vote. ‘SUFFRAGE DEAD’ declared June 3rd’s ‘Evening Journal’ page 1 all caps headline. 

“Anti-suffragists in the House made good to their threat yesterday afternoon and allowed the ratification resolution to die in the House committee. Friends of suffrage made an attempt to have the resolution considered in committee but failed. The Legislature adjourned sine die. [“without a day.” Indicates legislative session adjournment without specifying a reconvening date.] 

Delaware, the first state to ratify the Constitution, failed when called upon to ratify the 19th amendment. The 36th state vote would have to be found elsewhere. 

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